The Secret Gym

The first time I heard about the secret gym was freshman year.  I was helping move music stands back to the band room after our spring concert.  A couple of other students and I were in a service elevator with a few racks of stands, when one of them, a sophomore, wondered aloud “I wonder if this thing goes up to the old abandoned gym.”  The rest of us had never heard of it, so our classmate explained that, according to “legend”, there used to be a gym in the attic of one of the high school’s four buildings.  One day, the gym caught fire.  Students were injured, one was maybe even killed, and the room had been sealed off and abandoned ever since.

Being largely unfamiliar with the layout of the high school, I imagined a vast space up above us, with honey-colored bleachers and a wooden basketball court glowing gold and warm from sun streaming in through the high windows.  Then I imagined the space blackened and dark, the charred bones of the unlucky student still mingled among the ashes, as memories of the room and the death were locked up and made to be forgotten as quickly as possible.  A vengeful student was surely haunting my high school.

I later realized that such a high-ceilinged, open space would be impossible to conceal in that section of the school.  The second floor, full of classrooms, was clearly as far up as it went.  Once I understood as much, I largely forgot about the story of the gym, and never heard it repeated by another student.  It was just a story to scare us greenies.

I come from a small town, with a population of just under 10,000, which seems to decline a little more every census.  A small town means a small, and quite ancient, high school building.  The building has been expanded over the years, adding East and West wings and a large basketball court, but the original building itself is over 100 years old.  A building with that kind of age comes with delightful details and surprises;  hardwood floors, classrooms with sliding divider walls, and closets, doors, windows, and narrow staircases in strange places, hinting at past uses.  A new junior high building was recently constructed for the town, and I scoffed at its blandness, its sterility.  In 100 years, students won’t marvel at the beauty of their school’s architecture, they’ll wonder why anyone would design a school to look like a hospital or prison.

Photo by Dallas Clemmons

The exterior of the high school is remarkable as well.  Beautiful gothic-style bay windows and entryways, decorative molding high up on the peaks of the roof, and a large turret spanning the entire height of the building.  The building is lovely to observe, and I spent many moments enjoying its details while running laps around campus for athletics class.

It was during one of these jogs that I noticed something odd about the original section of the building, called the ‘B’ building.  I knew there were classrooms on the first and second floors, with windows on the north side of the building.  That grand turret that ran up the side of the building had large windows on floors one and two as well.  But above that, under a tall pointed cone roof,  appeared to be a third floor with double the windows, smaller, boarded up and painted white.  The space was as large those on the other two floors, large enough to hold an entire office.  Observing the rest of the building, I saw other windows at the same height, also boarded up.  They were in the high-peaked attic of the original building.  The attic I had never noticed before.  The attic that could have once housed a small gym.

The original building
The original building

Once I made the connection, I had to know more.  What was up there?  Why wasn’t the space being utilized?  What had it looked like in its prime?  Did any photos survive of the space as it was back then?  The beautiful building I had always admired had outdone itself by gifting me with my very favorite thing in life; a mystery.

I began observing the details of the building more closely from that day on, looking for ways one might access the mysterious attic, but I wasn’t sure how to discover more.  I was too shy to go around asking janitors, and too much of “good kid” to go snooping.  For a while, I was stuck.

One day, I shared my mystery with two of my closest friends, a little hesitant of whether they would react with any interest at all.  To my surprise, they were as enthralled with the idea as I was, and the three of us embarked on a quest to solve the mystery before we graduated.

We started searching the ceilings for trap doors, and found one above a set of lockers.  We found excuses to visit the rooms in the turret on the first and second floors, looking for remnants of access to the third.  We inspected the boarded up windows and peaked roof from every angle.  One day we saw workers had a ladder up on the roof, and our minds filled with terribly dangerous ideas for getting inside that attic.

***

I managed to get a few anecdotes about the attic out of some older town residents.  One day in history class, our teacher was taking questions students had about the history of the school and the town.  Having taught there for so many years, and in the ‘B’ building itself, I figured he might know something.  With a nervous, racing heart, I raised my hand and asked if he had heard of a secret gym that had been in the attic of that building.  To my surprise, and to the audible curiosity of my fellow classmates, he had heard of the mysterious attic, though he couldn’t say for sure what was, or had been, up there.  “Right above us,” he had said with a grand and eerie gesture.

The second tale came from my French Horn teacher.  He had been a band director at the school many years in the past.  During one lesson, I asked him about the attic.  He said that a small staircase used to run up the wall to access that attic.  One summer when the janitorial staff was cleaning the school, he saw that the door to the attic was open, as someone was cleaning it out.  He crept up the stairs, curious for a look.  He said that the opening to the attic first lead to small alcove, with a door leading to the rest of the space.  He peeked through the bit of space in the ajar door, and claimed seeing some old athletic equipment and junk strewn about.  Maybe the space was just being used for storage, but maybe it was what was left of the first gym in the school.  I imagined him, a young teacher, filled with the same curiosity then that filled us now.  This place was powerful.

With all of this new information, my two friends and I were even more determined to find hard evidence of the gym.  We went to the local library, like good super-sleuths always do, and into the Local History section–a small room full of old atlases, maps, history books, and, what we were after, yearbooks.  We took out a stack and started sifting through the pages, eager to find a photo of a sports team or athletics class using the gym.  A few times we thought we had found one, only to realize it was actually a photo of the gym in the ‘C’ building (now the girls’ gym), whose bleachers apparently used to extend all the way down to the floor, and had since been truncated to make more floor space.

As we moved into more recent yearbooks, our hope started to wane.  A lanky, unkempt man in overalls entered the room, so we searched more quietly, whispering general statements of “Not in this one” or “It’s just the other one again.”  After milling around for a few moments, the man suddenly turned to us.  “Are you looking for the secret gym in the high school?” he asked bluntly, with a heavy southern lilt to his voice, typical of the area.  Startled, we confessed that we were, in fact, searching for said gym.  “Well, you won’t find it here, I’ve already looked through all of those, and it isn’t there,” he said, gesturing towards the stacks of yearbooks.  We laughed nervously and thanked him for the advice, exchanging bewildered looks across the table for a few moments until he left.

Our story was starting to get strange.  We hadn’t been overt in our purpose for looking through the yearbooks, and the coincidence of this man having conducted a similar search was too creepy.  We left the library with a somehow stronger conviction.

We decided there was only one person who we could be certain knew the secrets of the mystery attic:  the local town historian.  He was famous for knowing absolutely everything there was to know about our town, and the school.  He had a special seat on the basketball bleachers painted and reserved, just for him.  He was even reported to call a handful of students on their birthday every year without fail.  He was also one of the oldest residents in town.  If he didn’t know the truth about the attic, nobody would.

The three of us gathered at my house and found his name in the phone book.  With a kind of courage I have never managed to call upon since, I dialed his home number.  My friends listened in using two of the other wireless landline phones in the house.

It rang a few times, and a woman answered.  It was his personal assistant and nurse.  I explained that I was a student from the high school, and I had a few questions about the building if he was available.  A few moments later, I was explaining our question to His Historicalness, as humbly and articulately as I could with my heart pounding out of my chest.

“We heard that there used to be a gym in the attic of the ‘B’ building, and we were wondering if you knew anything about what used to be up there?”

His voice suddenly snapped out of the receiver.  “There is nothing up there and there never was, and you kids should just leave it alone!”

I don’t remember if I managed to end the conversation civilly, or if he simply hung up on us, but at that point we were convinced.  There was definitely something up there.

***

Graduation came and went.  We had run out of leads and ideas.  But we weren’t quite ready to give up.  During our search, we had learned that many a delinquent young man had accessed the attic by means of the trap door above the lockers.  We certainly weren’t delinquents, but now that we couldn’t be threatened with suspension, or be held back from graduation, our confidence had greatly increased.  We devised a plan.  The school was being cleaned for the summer, but we had been tipped off by a co-conspiring teacher that some students were still taking make-up exams.  The building would be open and accessible, with students like us here and there, but not so busy that we would be spotted right away.  It was perfect.

We made our way up to the second floor one warm afternoon and found we were in luck–a stack of desks and chairs sat right in front of the lockers, making a perfect platform to climb up and on top to access the trap door.  We looked left, we looked right, nobody was around.  I climbed the unstable structure and managed to lift myself up onto the dusty lockers.  The metal buckled a little under my weight, and a vision of my body half-trapped in a collapsed locker flashed through my mind.  But the metal didn’t give, and while my friends kept lookout, I moved under the trap door.  The space between the top of the lockers and the ceiling was enough that I could stand up straight.  What I couldn’t tell standing down on the ground was that the height was great enough that I could barely reach the door itself.

Frustrated, I almost gave up for fear of being caught, but having made it all that way, I at least wanted to try moving the door.  I pushed up, and the seal of wood and paint made a loud pop as the door came loose.  I slid the door slightly to one side and looked up.  Darkness.

I assessed the situation.  There was no way I would be able to lift myself up through the door, I simply wasn’t tall enough.  We could try to get a chair on top of the lockers, or have one of my friends come up and lift me, but by then we surely would have been seen.

Instead, my friend passed me my digital camera.  I stood on my tiptoes and pointed the camera up into the abyss, taking three pictures with the flash.  We could hear a janitor in a nearby classroom shuffling things around and we got nervous.  I quickly replaced the door to its original position and climbed down from the lockers and desk pile just in time to see a janitor coming down the hall.  The three of us casually headed in the other direction and escaped the school to inspect our photos.

The results were a bit disappointing.  We couldn’t see much at all, and the only photo that came out well was focused on an old wooden beam where someone had carved their name in big letters.  My friend had the photos, including one of me as I opened the trap door, printed on some nice photo paper.  I keep them in a folder, and they remind me of the time a mystery drove my straight-laced friends and me as close as we would come in our school careers to breaking the rules.

***

Maybe someday I’ll find a way to try again, and document all of the building’s quirks and beauties by photo, if the school survives that long.  The roof is leaking and the basement is apparently flooded.  Small towns mean small budgets for things like the upkeep and renovation of historical buildings.  Then again, if the imminent destruction of that place is the impetus I require to get past my hang-ups and just go ask permission, maybe I don’t deserve to see it at all.

And maybe seeing it would tarnish everything we have built up around it.  Maybe, well, almost certainly the reality is much more mundane than the fantasy.  We were so sure the town historian was hiding something with his angry and foreboding tone.  Maybe he was just an old man tired of schoolkids and rednecks bothering him with questions about an old urban legend.

Even if there is, and never was, anything mysterious there, and even if I never set foot in that school again before it’s razed, I’ll always be thankful for the way that building cultivated my sense of romance and mystery in my most formative years.